A New Food Pantry on Campus Addresses the National University Food Crisis

 

UT Senior Seth Sageser never thought he would suffer from food insecurity. Until last fall, he didn’t even know what the term meant. He had been at UT for one year. He was a good student and had just started his term as president of the Texas Transfer Students organization. His parents had always been supportive, but as a result of his mother going back to school and a falling out with his father, when he left their home in Fort Worth to go to college, Sageser was on his own financially. At first, he thought finding a paid job would be easy. But after months of unsuccessful applications and having to use the majority of his financial aid on rent, he started to buy in bulk and cut out meat and produce. Eventually, he limited himself to solely eating rice and cheese casseroles. There were times he couldn’t bring himself to study and went to bed early instead—it was easier than being hungry.

When friends asked him to meet for dinner, go downtown, or even study together, he had to decline. After awhile, they stopped inviting him. “In my head it was rent, food, and then entertainment,” he says. “If I can’t afford the first two things, how am I going to afford anything else?”

For many UT students, focusing on their schoolwork, getting to class, or hanging out with friends is complicated by their silent stomach aches, caused by skipped or unbalanced meals.

According to a 2016 UT University Health Services survey, 23 percent of students suffered food insecurity, or the state of being without reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food. Director of Student Emergency Services (SES) Kelly Soucy says this can mean different things, from students who eat from dollar menus at fast food restaurants because they can’t afford to buy groceries to students who manage to decrease their food budget to $10 a month, stretching a single can of beans across a couple of days. Spending so much time trying to put food on the table, she says, is a huge distraction to their academic success.

“If they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from, [then] they’ve got the physical sensations of hunger that are distracting in the classroom,” she says. “Or they might be picking up multiple jobs to try and make ends meet and are not able to spend the time on their academics that they want to.”

According to the largest national survey assessing the basic needs security of university students released April 3 by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of university students reported being both food and housing insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. Rising tuition and rent prices, increased competition for low-wage jobs, and strict work requirements to apply for food stamps cause students to have fewer ways to provide for themselves. The HOPE Lab suggests possible solutions to the campus hunger problem including providing “food scholarships” to students and families; fostering a host home system run by neighbors, faculty and staff, and alumni; and reducing on-campus food costs to as low as $1 per meal.

On May 2, SES revealed a new project to combat food insecurity: UT Outpost, which includes both a food pantry to provide students with no-cost food packets as well as a career closet, equipped with an array of professional clothing for students who may not be able to afford a new suit or dress for interviews or internships.

The food packets contain 16 to 18 meals and include things like canned beans and vegetables, cereals, and grains. They can be catered to dietary restrictions like gluten intolerance, nut allergies, or vegetarianism. SES coordinator Will Ross said students are not required to provide evidence of income or family size to use the pantry—services are available for any currently enrolled student.

“We know that sometimes survey data and requirements can be a barrier for someone who may think, ‘I come from a really well-off family … and I may not qualify,’” he says. “Sometimes students will self-select themselves out of getting these benefits—we want to make sure it’s easy for [them].”

Ross says that while students who have used the pantry are relieved and feel acknowledged by the university, he and his team are still trying to address stigmas that may prevent students from participating. With at least 14 colleges in Texas having opened food pantries on campus, including Texas Tech and the University of North Texas in Denton, Longhorns are following the stead of many universities in addressing food insecurity while also offering peer-to-peer support for students.

“A lot of students don’t like talking about the fact that they’re struggling with this,” Soucy says. “Even with our soft opening this semester, we’ve seen students feel embarrassed that they’re having to come and ask for food when it’s really more prevalent than people are understanding.”

One of their main priorities moving forward is to continue educating UT on food insecurity. They’re doing so by partnering with sustainability programs and departments on campus to create events where administrators like Ross can provide information and spread the word on how students can get involved.

And some already have. In February, Texas Transfer Students, Texas Sunshines, Student Veterans Association, and Students Over 25 joined forces to collect over $1,000 worth of food to be donated to the pantry while it was getting off the ground.

Sageser says one of his focuses this year was giving back to UT’s campus. Although he landed a paid internship this semester and doesn’t consider himself food insecure at the moment, he has a heightened awareness of the campus issue now after struggling with it his junior year. When he learned transfer students have a higher rate of food insecurity than most students, he realized how important it was that TTS build a relationship with the program, whether that was by hosting food drives, helping stock the pantry, or simply bringing up its existence casually in conversation so students know what is available to them. He is currently working with Ross and the incoming TTS president to establish an annual or semesterly drive. Soucy says they’re also working to collect new data to find out if there are groups of students on campus they need to work more closely with because of higher food insecurity rates.

Ultimately, the sustainability of the program will depend on the community effort and its student leaders.

“The best part about starting something new is it exponentially grows,” Sageser says. “As more people use it, I think that puts a little bit of pressure on the university [to question] how expensive food on campus actually is for students or to provide cans to the pantry. I don’t know what the solution is, but you can keep trying ideas until you find something.”

Credit: Thinkstock 

 
 
 

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